Expert Reviews – Mahale Mountains NP

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Chimpanzees on the shore of Lake Tanganyika
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Mahale Mountains is arguably the best place in Africa to see chimpanzees. There are several lovely lodges on the lake shore and visitors can go out chimp tracking every morning. The chimps are habituated and go about their business as if you’re not there. Although you are meant to keep a distance, the chimps don’t always stick to this rule. On several occasions a chimp brushed against me while walking past on the narrow forest trails. The park is very remote and the only way to get there is by small aircraft and boat. Once there, the setting is like something of a Robinson Crusoe tale. The water is crystal clear and the forested mountains tower over the deserted beach. Other activities include bird walks, fishing, forest and waterfall hikes and dhow trips on the lake. Although not a classical safari destination, chimp tracking in Mahale ranks to me as one of the top wildlife viewing experiences in Africa.

Make like Tarzan in the remotest of parks
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Mahale National Park is so remote, you can’t even get there by road, but have to arrive by boat from the small town of Kigoma, just a few miles from where Stanley uttered the immortal words “Dr Livingstone, I presume”. The forested Mahale Mountains rise up spectacularly from the shores of Lake Tanganyika , with the coast of Congo visible in the distance. The lake is as clear as mineral water, so clear that on one boat trip I looked down and saw a hippo walking along the bottom. The incredible beauty of the lake with its white beaches, and the verdant green forest, would be reason enough for a visit, but the main drawcard here is the chimpanzees.

Like better-known Gombe Stream, Mahale has been home to a primate research project since the 1960s, this one run by a team of Japanese researchers. This means that the chimpanzees, while still totally wild, are somewhat habituated to human visitors. It was worth the steep climb into the forest to catch up with a group of them playing on the pathways or crashing through the trees, and I’ll never forget the frank, inquisitive gaze of a baby chimp looking up at me as I caught up with his group in a pool of sunlight in a clearing.

Amazingly, Mahale is accessible to adventurous budget travelers as well as guests of its various luxury lakeshore camps – you can catch a southbound lake steamer from Kigoma and ask to get picked up by boat at the park, where you can stay in modest self-catering huts and accompany National Park guides into the forest to find the chimps. My idea of paradise is returning from a morning’s chimp-watching in the forest and plunging into the cool, pristine waters of the lake.

Close-Up Chimpanzee Encounters & Stunning Scenery
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Mahale is an outstanding destination both for close-up encounters with chimpanzees and for the stunning scenery. Forested mountains rise up directly from the lakeshore, and the remote location means that you will likely have your patch of Lake Tanganyika sand to yourself. When you first arrive, the setting is so seductive that the proximity of the chimps can seem almost like an unexpected side benefit; the combination of the two is magical.

Mahale's chimps are well habituated. With two to three days in the park, sightings are almost guaranteed, although you may have to do a considerable amount of walking and scrambling up the slopes first. It took our group several hours to locate the chimps, and another group in camp hadn't glimpsed any until their second day trying. For anyone with time and a sense of adventure: travel at least one way to/from Mahale on the MV Liemba (currently running only every second week).

Primate Nirvana
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This is an absolutely stunning national park in several respects. It is not easy to reach on a budget, thanks to its remote location, but it is highly recommended to anybody who is able and willing to throw money at an utterly unforgettable wilderness experience. Set on the shore of Lake Tanganyika – the world’s longest and reputedly least polluted lake – the soft, sandy beaches here might have been transplanted from an uninhabited Indian Ocean island. Above the lakeshore, a forested stretch of jungle-swathed Rift Valley escarpment rises to the lofty 2,460m peak of Mount Nkungwe. But the main attraction is the park's chimps, which number around 1,000. Indeed, Mahale is possibly the best place in the world to track wild chimpanzees, with the 60 individuals in the Mimikere Community, which was first habituated to visitors in the 1960s, being just as approachable as their counterparts at Gombe. Other forest primates likely to be seen are yellow baboon, red-tailed and blue monkeys, and red colobus, while birds include the dazzling Ross’s turaco. And swimming in this astonishingly clear lake, with the forested peaks of Nkungwe looming almost 2km higher, is an utter delight.

The premier chimpanzee experience in all of Africa
Overall rating

Off-the-beaten-track Mahale is a wilderness safari destination of the highest order. Located south of Kigoma town in western Tanzania, it adjoins Lake Tanganyika – the longest, second deepest and least polluted freshwater lake in the world, home to an estimated 1,000 fish species. Few tourists undertake the long and arduous journey to Mahale, which is a real shame because this is one of Africa’s greatest wilderness areas and premier primate safari destinations, with a truly magical chimp trekking experience on offer. Pristine Mahale feels like the wild Africa of a hundred years ago.

The dry season (from mid-May to October) is touted as the best time to visit Mahale, because the chimps are likely to be seen foraging in big groups, while the sunny and rain-free days make the white-sand beach an inviting place to relax after trekking. Diving off the lodge’s dhow (boat) and swimming out in the deep crystal-clear water (far from the lake shore and crocodiles!) is also an absolute must.

By contrast, I visited Mahale in February, but still enjoyed a superb experience without another tourist in sight. Although Mahale is open all year round, visiting between March and May is not recommended, as heavy rains force both lodges to temporarily close and chimp trekking can be a real mud-fest.

From the lakeshore, the mountainous scenery is breathtaking with a variety of primates, including red colobus, red-tailed monkey and the blue monkey, likely to be seen. The vocal birdlife is prolific – if a little hard to see in the dense tropical forest – but it is the chimpanzees that quite rightly dominate every Mahale safari experience. While the trek to spend 90 minutes in their company is an invigorating experience, it is just as awe-inspiring to sit on the dhow with a cold beer in hand and fishing line in the water, listening to their eerie calls booming through the dense forest at sunset.

Mahale is accessible by air, road and boat, but the easiest way to visit is during the peak tourist season of June to October when safari operators schedule regular flights between Mahale, Arusha and nearby Katavi National Park.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.6/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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